Odessa, Ukraine—Almost all of the proposals for resolving the current crisis between Russian and Ukraine overlook one of the central actors—the residents of the Crimean peninsula. The dominant media narrative seems to be that it was Russian intervention that created the problem of Crimean separatism in the first place, so, if Russian troops are removed, everything will soon return to normal.
This is wishful thinking. In fact, as the research done by University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski shows, resentment against the central government in Kiev has been on the rise in Crimea since the 2004 Orange revolution. If, in 1996 and 2001, only half of Crimean residents supported rejoining Russia, by 2008 a survey by the Kiev based Razumkov Center showed that, among those who had made up their mind on the issue, 73 percent backed secession from Ukraine with a goal of joining Russia. When given additional options, 47 percent said they favored Crimea becoming an independent state, while 6 percent wanted to join Turkey.
It is especially interesting to note that in that survey 65 percent of ethnic Ukrainians said they too wished to join Russia. Only Crimean Tatars, about 12 percent of the population, were predominantly against joining Russia, preferring their own national autonomy within Ukraine. It is therefore no surprise that in the latest poll, taken by the Crimean Republic’s Institute for Political and Sociological Research, 85 percent say they plan to take part in the referendum, and 77 percent say they will vote to join the Russian Federation.
The impartiality of research sponsored by the Crimean government might well be questioned, but its basic conclusions are confirmed even by ardent Ukrainian nationalists, like Lviv based journalist Ostap Drozdov. He calls Crimea “a fifth column in Ukraine,” but candidly admits that any legitimate referendum held in Crimea (certainly not the current one) would end up benefiting Putin. His disturbing conclusion: “by fighting to keep Crimea within Ukraine, we are fighting for the presence of potential traitors. And they won’t be going anywhere after Ukraine successfully deals with the current nightmare. The nightmare will have only begun…whatever the results of this conflict, Ukraine will have won no prize. On the contrary, we will have preserved a peninsula which will paralyze any movement forward.”
Thus, while by any account Crimea’s legal basis for holding a referendum is weak, that is largely beside the point. Moscow’s military actions may have emboldened the Crimean parliament to take a stand against Kiev now, but the inconvenient truth is that many Crimeans, both Russians and Ukrainians, have not felt comfortable in Ukraine for some time. The violence they witnessed on the Maidan, the peremptory removal of president Yanukovych, and the abrupt imposition of a new constitution have only hardened their views. It is worth recalling that when, on February 27, the Crimean parliament first decided to hold a referendum on expanding regional autonomy, it was exclusively within the context of remaining in Ukraine. It was Kiev’s ham-fisted attempt to replace key regional officials after agreeing not to do so that led to the inclusion of a second option to join Russia. Leaving Ukraine was placed on the table because the threat of force against Crimea was not taken off the table.
The referendum results seem to be a foregone conclusion. The question now is, can the results be interpreted in a way that allows politicians in both Kiev and Crimea to save face? There is. While it is notoriously difficult to hold all-Ukrainian referendum, it is much easier to hold advisory referenda. Under article 46 of the Law on All-Ukrainian and Local Referenda, such “consultative referenda” can be held “in the interest of determining the will of the citizenry on both national and local matters.” Such referenda need only by approved by two-thirds of the deputies of a regional parliament. The results are not binding, but “are reviewed and considered by state authorities in the process of decision making.”
Instead of peremptorily dismissing the results of the Crimean referendum as meaningless, the interim government in Kiev could say that it regards them as advisory and is willing to begin negotiations on that basis. For its part, the Crimean parliament could take a step back and treat the referendum results as a very strong bargaining position for further negotiations, rather than as a mandate for separation. To encourage the latter, a key point to negotiate would be the need to hold a binding referendum on the status of Crimea, under the auspices of international observers and with the consent of the Ukrainian government, at some fixed date in the future, perhaps after the next Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections.
Beyond that, while it is encouraging to hear Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk say that all options are on the table, his soothing words in Washington must be followed by actions at home to create a true government of national unity. For it to be perceived as such in the East and the South, however, it cannot have people in it from parties they consider extremist. As veteran Ukrainian diplomat Alexander Chalyi puts it, the interim government must implement the spirit, if not the letter, of February 21 accords “before the entire Ukrainian people, and not just before its voters, predominantly from the Western and Central regions.”
Finally, Western governments must decide which is more important, punishing Russia or preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Given the vast disparity in their abilities to exert influence in Ukraine, it may not be possible to do both. It bears repeating that Russia has stated only two requirements for a return to the status quo ante. First, that the population in the East and the South must be safe. Second, that they be part of the political process. If Kiev were to take meaningful steps in this direction, according to Putin’s interview on March 4, it would indicate that the “socio-political situation in the country is normalizing,” and remove any rationale for Russian intervention. Ambassador Chalyi’s detailed plan is a good road map for getting there because it addresses Russian concerns, the concerns of Ukraine’s regions, and safeguards Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Ultimately, however, Ukraine’s dilemmas will not be resolved in any foreign capital. They must be negotiated between Kiev and the regions. Paradoxically, Russian intervention has provided Crimeans an opportunity to get their grievances heard where it matters most—in Kiev. Russia must now not press its advantage to Ukraine’s disadvantage, and hope that politicians in Kiev, Crimea, and elsewhere do the same.